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HOWARD ROSENBERG

From the Mouths of Babes . . . at the Democratic Convention

July 19, 1988|HOWARD ROSENBERG

ATLANTA — Journalism is a hard racket.

Jonathan Zachary is proving that in the sweltering heat of Atlanta, covering the Democratic Party convention just two weeks after returning from a grueling assignment in Israel's occupied West Bank. "They force-fed me coffee during the shoots," he groaned about his second trip out of the country. The first was to Brazil.

" Ohhhh , the bathing suits there," Jonathan said, rolling his eyes. "Like tiny little G-strings."

If nothing else, Jonathan may be the smallest bikini connoisseur here, and the easiest to spot: about 5 feet tall, yellow T-shirt, short pants, tousled blond hair. And, oh yes, he's 13.

"I think I'm getting burned out," he said.

If only he'd cut the baby talk.

"The kid's gonna be a star," said Harry Moses, executive producer of "CE News Magazine," a 12-week series of 30-minute programs coming to public television Oct. 13. "He's one of the best natural interviewers I've ever seen--boy or man."

And Moses, a former "60 Minutes" producer, has seen Mike and Morley.

"CE News Magazine" is an outgrowth of Children's Express--a nonprofit, gift-supported print news organization staffed by extraordinarily bright and committed kids and overseen by a few dedicated adults such as founder Robert Clampitt. They're blitzing Atlanta this week, covering the convention.

The TV series mixes a core of supervising adults with Jonathan and seven other Children's Express staffers. In a microcosm of actual TV-versus-print economics, the kids are paid $450 a story when they work on "CE Magazine," nothing when they work for Children's Express.

"This is '60 Minutes' with kids as reporters," Moses said from New York about the series. "But this is not a kids' show. We're doing the same stories '60 Minutes' and '20/20' do, but from a child's perspective. It's a show that never would get on one of the commercial networks because it's about empowering kids to go out in the adult world and challenge adult authority. The interesting thing is that they don't have any fear of the camera, and they don't over-emote like adults do."

There should be another designation for the kids of Children's Express. Like kidults .

Anyone who has seen the reporters and editors in action--there are 90 here, ages 8-18--will vouch for that. In their yellow (for reporters) and red (for editors) T-shirts, they look like summer campers, but not the kind homicidal Jason would want to encounter in "Friday the 13th." Seemingly inhibited by no one, they hold their ground. The common reaction from adult journalists: "Who are these kids?"

I sat in on one of their convention briefings run by senior editor Rebecca Walkowitz, 17, who accompanied Jonathan to Israel for "CE Magazine." It was extraordinary in its clarity about the issues and the nuances of political campaigns.

At one point, Rebecca cautioned the staff about falling for politicians' "catch phrases," quoting a statement by Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis about Central America: "We showed our neighbors a fist when they needed a helping hand."

"That's a catch phrase if I've ever heard one," said Rebecca, who will enroll as a freshman at Harvard in the fall.

"There's one issue I haven't heard the candidates mention, and that's the ozone layer," said a reporter, who looked about 12.

Whew!

"Unlike most adult journalists, these kids are not jaded and cynical," Moses said about Children's Express. "They have not lost their sense of moral outrage. So they shine a moral beacon on every story they do. They really believe that there are rights and wrongs, and that they can change things."

Moses agrees that those going on to careers in professional journalism, as Rebecca plans to do, may be absorbed into the mainstream and become like The Rest of Us.

On the other hand, they could make the mainstream better.

Created in 1975 by New York lawyer Clampitt, Children's Express began as a magazine and stunned everyone at the Democratic convention a year later by breaking the story that Jimmy Carter had selected Walter Mondale as his running mate. It's now a syndicated news service with eight bureaus, including several overseas.

In Atlanta this week, the group is publishing two 16-page tabloid sections as part of the Atlanta Journal and Constitution (Sunday's lead headline: "Will Kids Win in '88?").

Children's Express also has a quasi-commitment for appearances on CBS News during the convention. Not as guests, but as reporters. "If they come up with something, we'll put them on the air," said Lane Vernardos, executive producer of special events for CBS News.

It was no coincidence that Moses should launch "CE News Magazine." One of his last "60 Minutes" segments was on Children's Express, a concept he hoped to adapt to TV. After leaving CBS, he raised money for a pilot, whose success led to a grant of nearly $2 million to underwrite a dozen new episodes.

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